What is there about reading Scripture that is so scary for some of us?
One reason, I suspect is because reading Scripture is like reading a foreign language whose vocabulary is unlike the words we use every day.
My first exposure to the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina (Holy Reading) felt like this: foreign and perhaps somewhat regimented. What I was looking for was a way of approaching Scripture that would draw me to a greater intimacy with God in deeper love, understanding and trust.
Traditionally, Lectio consists of four steps: Reading, Pondering, Praying and Contemplation. Depending on the teacher, the number of steps may vary. Some of us (such as the author of this piece!) cringe at the merest suggestion of regimentation where prayer is concerned. However, like learning to play a musical instrument or to master a sport, a certain strictness or method is necessary at the beginning until a degree of comfort or mastery is achieved.
For an example of how to go about this fruitful kind of prayer, let’s study the first part of Psalm 84. I will refer to the writer of the Psalm as a poet, since indeed poetic language is used.
(1) Read (Lectio). We begin by simply reading the verses for their basic meaning.
How lovely your dwelling, O LORD of hosts!
My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the LORD.
My heart and flesh cry out for the living God.
As the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest to settle her young,
My home is by your altars, LORD of hosts, my king and my God!
Blessed are those who dwell in your house!
They never cease to praise you.
Clearly, the poet is attracted by the beauty of God’s dwelling, and longs to be a part of it.
(2) Ponder (Meditatio).
To enter deeply and prayerfully into this text, we touch and savor each word and even pay attention to what is not said. Strong feelings are expressed in passionate words: My soul yearns and pines.
Yet even these expressions are too tame for the depth of the poet’s emotions, so his language escalates: My heart and flesh cry out!
As we continue this thoughtful reading, we realize that the poet is not giving us a graphic picture or architectural rendering of the Lord’s house, but is giving us a passionate understanding of the Lord’s own home. The poet accomplishes this by omitting any mention regarding the physical aspects of the place: carved pillars, the luxuriant use of marble, gold, precious stones and fabrics. Excluding outward descriptions creates a stronger impression that what draws us is not a material building, but God Himself as a place of refuge and love.
(3) Pray (Oratio). We ask God to reveal Himself to us.
How often in our prayer we are led beyond words to an almost desperate feeling of longing! We can’t think of words to say, our feeling is so overpowering. What we sense is an absence, a void that only God can fill, for it is in this emptiness that our prayer is intensified.
(4) Contemplation (Contemplatio). We bask in the insights God has granted us in this Scripture.
The poet’s intention is to describe God’s welcoming and tender nature. He is home to the humble, not a palace limited to the great or mighty who parade inside, laden with costly gifts. No, the poet uses the small and the vulnerable (the sparrow and the swallow with her young) to describe the kind of souls God desires to welcome. God invites us to live in the very shadow of his altars where holy offerings are made daily.
We are there to stay. We are permanent residents in this splendidly humble home of the Lord. Unimportant as we may wrongly think of ourselves, we are blessed and welcomed into the holy presence of God. We are safe, protected, loved, and never cease to thank and praise him for his great love.
Our final graced realization is that this beautiful dwelling where God abides is none other than our very soul, the temple of the Lord.